The changes may be relatively subtle, but the new Eee PC 900 is clearly an improvement on the old 701 design. The major change is the larger 8.9in screen, which is not only a better fit for Windows, but has a higher 1024 x 600 resolution (one of the major annoyances with the original version).
Onboard storage has also increased, from 4GB to 12GB (for the windows version) or 20GB for the Linux model. It's a handy increase, though most enthusiasts will likely be plugging in portable hard drives making this not so big a deal. If you're using Skype for video chat then the new 1.3MP webcam will also come in handy.
We're pleased to see the overall weight is still below 1Kg, which is one of the Eee's drawcards over some sleek rivals with DVD, like Lenovo's X300 (1.3Kg) and the Asus U2E (1.25Kg). The processor is still the same basic "Intel Mobile CPU", thought you get 1GB instead of the 512MB of the 701.
Unfortunately the keyboard is still one the Eee PC's biggest drawbacks - it's tiny, the keys are fiddly to use, and you wouldn't want to do more than bang out some notes on the train or bus.
Windows XP Eee 900 - why it rules the roost
As we pointed out recently, the XP version in the 900 series is surprisingly responsive. It comes pre-bundled with a host of useful extras including Skype, Microsoft Works, a mini-DVD player software from Intervideo (for external DVD players), and IE. The machine is also a platform for pushing Microsoft's Windows Live service for email and instant messaging.
XP runs on the 900 like the way XP should – fast. We never had any grievances with XP on the 900 and that’s a relief, considering it’s not a powerful machine. In fact, we tested a wide range of multimedia extras on the XP version and found it just as responsive as laptops in the more expensive $3000 plus category.
The bundled version of Works is a nice add-on for document compatibility straight out of the box and while it’s not as powerful as Word, it does get the job done. We also tested Mp3 and Mpg4 playback without any problems. We didn’t notice any flaws in the playability from VLC player opening DivX/Xvid files, although you will need to download a separate codec pack as is standard for these types of files. Mp3 playback was just as responsive.
The improved HD audio ports make the sound through the headphones sparklingly good. The speakers which are now at the bottom of the unit do their best to pump out a reasonably loud and clear sound, although it’s quite tinny. You can’t expect audio miracles from micro speakers.
The XP unit contains 12GB of solid state flash memory. Considering the small price of USB sticks now and the dwindling cost of flash memory, it’s not a real problem having 8GB less than the Linux version.
While the extra application compatibility of XP is a clear drawcard, XP's limiting factor was always it's performance. With the extra RAM and relatively smooth performance under XP, and lower asking price, it's clear the XP machine has the edge.
Linux Eee 900 - fast bootup, but it's Linux
It pains us to say it (as we're fans of Asus' work with Linux), but we think the Linux Eee 900 is the lesser of the two machines.
For starters, it's more expensive at $649,compared to $599 for the XP version, which is just a slap in the face to anyone wanting a cheap and no frills operating system. We understand the reasoning - the Linux version comes with 20GB onboard storage, vs 12GB for the Windows version - but the advantages don't outweigh the price increase.
On the upside, the Eee 900 is the faster machine. Bootup times are on par with the windows version, taking about 25 seconds verse 29 for the Windows Eee PC. The Linux machine is a lot quicker to shutdown though, taking about 9 seconds vs 22 for the XP machine. The machine also lasted about 2.5 hours on batteries without wireless on.
The now-familiar custom Xandros interface covers all the basics, including Web browsing, email, and word processing - OpenOffice will let you edit Excel and Word files (for Office 2000/XP), but we can't help feeling as thought Linux is still the Eee 900's achilles heel. Yes, you'll find an open source equivalent for just about every Windows app under the sun, but for many people that's not the same as running Excel, Word, or their favourite photo editor (though some might say that in the age of online apps like Picasa, this argument is a moot point).
Overall - XP wins, thought there's room for improvement
The application support, the lower asking price both put the XP machine at the top in our view, but it's clear both machines are improved on the original 701 design. If you're after a tiny notebook for basic tasks like Web browsing and email, the Eee still reigns as King of the cheap mini-portables.
To give you an idea of just how the Eee has shaken up the laptop market, this year we used a Fujitsu laptop that cost more than $3,500 - and it took longer to boot up, and was slower to use than the Linux Eee PC (or the XP version for that matter).
That said, if the Eee is going to break into the wider market it's going to need a few more tweaks, not least a larger keyboard. Here's what missing from the current configuration:
- bigger keyboard (full size might be asking too much, but right now it's just too small)
- wireless broadband (3G)
- dual core for running multiple apps
- Vista and the required graphics (Vista is slower, but at some point you'll want to upgrade to the new OS)
- Storage (80GB or more flash or magnetic storage)
We'd like to see a slightly bigger Eee next, possibly a 12.1 inch version, with the Intel Atom, and/or Core 2 Duo. (Asus has confirmed an Atom Eee is on the drawing board, with 3G).
It will also be interesting to see if premium (ie. expensive) laptops can see off the rise of the tiny cheapies like Asus's Eee, and HP's MiniNote. We'll be keeping an eye out to see if Centrino 2 can produce something special this year.
We've put both mini-notebooks through their paces, and while Linux fans may disagree, the winner is clear.
• ASUS: www.asus.com.au
• Price: $599 (Windows XP) $649 (Linux) • CPU model/brand: Intel Mobile CPU • Memory capacity: 1GB • Flash drive capacity: 12GB (Windows XP) 20GB (Linux) • Internal optical drive: No • Graphics type: onboard • Graphics: Intel UMA • Screen size: 8.9in • Screen resolution: 1024 x 600 • Weight: 0.99Kg • Dimensions WDH: 225 x 170 x 338mm • Ethernet: 10/100Mbps • Wi-Fi: 802.11b/g • USB ports: 3 • Output ports: VGA-out (D-Sub), earphone jack • Memory card reader: SD/MMC • Operating system: Windows XP Home/ Linux • Bundled software: MS Works (Windows XP Home version) • Webcam: 1.3Mp • Manufacturer: www.asus.com.au • Supplier: www.asus.com.au